Steppenwolf Theatre. By Melinda Lopez. Dir. Jessica Thebus. With Sandra Marquez, Sandra Delgado.
It’s not clear how this happened, but Sonia, the Cuban expatriate living an ostensibly successful but secretly painful life in modern-day Minneapolis, is the least interesting character in the play that bears her name. On one end of her experience is her teenage son, a descendant of refugees (in addition to mom Sonia, his paternal grandpa escaped Nazi Poland) who’s headed for Iraq, hellbound to defend his country despite his mom’s disapproval. On the other end are Sonia’s Cuban parents, who, under the muscular thumb of Castro’s regime, went to shocking extremes to get their teenage daughter out of the country. But Sonia, the tie that binds these stories, is the play’s central concern, and even when played in act one by the textured, empathic Marquez, she’s hard to care about.
Lopez’s carefully programmed “natural” dialogue, alternating with confessional soliloquies, are a partial culprit in smothering her fine premise (which could have explored the paradox of immigrants’ loyalty to their punishing new nation). As her American characters b.s. about the tradition of 7-Up salad to avoid discussing their demons, we can almost finish the actors’ lines before they do. (Thebus’s sturdy but predictable direction heightens the “Haven’t we heard this before” atmosphere.) The Cuban-set second act is more taut, with a clearer sense of crises and crisp work from Vilma Silva as Sonia’s mother. But Delgado, too old to play 15-year-old Sonia, distracts from this. What a relief to see a Latina character who’s not a comic maid; if only she were more authentically made.—Christopher Piatt